ADHD Causes and Risk factors

ADHD (short for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) encompasses a wide range of behavioural disorders characterized by lack of attention and concentration, hyperactivity and inability to control impulsivity.

Causes of ADHD

A parent of a recently diagnosed child may blame themselves or their parenting, but more often than not the cause of the condition is not related to parenting at all.

Parenting and environment, however, may, to a certain extent, be responsible for worsening the child’s behavioural problems.

Risk factors of ADHD

There are no definite causes that have been found to trigger ADHD in a child. However, the following factors may contribute to a raised risk of the condition:-

  1. Altered anatomy or function of the brain – Brain scans have shown that some areas of the brain especially those related to activity and attention spans are different among children and adults with ADHD. (1) Some studies reveal that the frontal lobe of the brain (lies in the forefront of the brain) is different among people with ADHD. This area is related to decision making. There may also be derangement of neurotransmitters like dopamine and noradrenaline in the brain. These neurotransmitters are chemical messengers of the brain. (2)

  2. Genetics – ADHD sometimes may be inherited. There are studies that have found several genes that are related to ADHD causation. (1)

  3. Being male – Boys and men are more at risk of developing ADHD than girls and women. This could be due to genetic factors or hormonal factors. Studies suggest that since ADHD is commonly associated with violent and hyperactivity symptoms, many girls who have predominant inattentive type of ADHD maybe missed out while diagnosing. These girls often grow up to manifest the condition as adolescents or young adults. (2)

  4. Maternal drug abuse, alcohol intake and smoking – Some studies have shown that pregnant women who smoke, take alcohol or use recreational drugs are at a higher risk of giving birth to children who go on to develop ADHD. The exact pathology behind this association is not well known. However, it is speculated that this type of abuse in utero, or within the womb, reduces the neuronal activity and alters the nerve messenger chemicals neurotransmitters. Pregnant women who are exposed to environmental toxins are also at risk of giving birth to babies who may develop ADHD. (1)

  5. Exposure to toxins – Toddlers and preschoolers who are exposed to environmental poisons and toxins are also at higher risk of behavioural problems. Notable among these is lead exposure from paint and pipes in old buildings that has been linked to short attention spans and violent behaviour in some children. (1)

  6. Traumatic brain injury – Brain injury has also been linked to ADHD in some studies. However the number of children who have suffered such brain injuries is too small to explain the rising prevalence of ADHD. (3)

  7. Additives – Some food additives such as preservatives and artificial colouring have been linked to aggravation and increased risk of ADHD. Detailed research in this area is warranted as there is no definitive evidence. (1)

  8. Sugar – Studies and common belief says excess sugar in a child’s diet often leads to behavioural problems. However, detailed studies have shown that there is no association between excess sugar in diet and raised risk of ADHD or even worsening of symptoms in children diagnosed with ADHD. (3)

  9. Food intolerance – Certain food intolerance like that to milk, wheat and nuts has also been linked to raised risk of ADHD. (2)

  10. Exposure to television – There have been concerns that excessive exposure to television at a young age may lead to an increased risk of ADHD. Although there are no studies that actually prove this association; there is evidence that exposure to excessive television may lead to inattentiveness and risk of ADHD later in life. (2)

  11. Other risk factors – These include being born prematurely before 37 weeks of gestation and being born with a low birth weight. Brain damage in utero, or in the first few years of life, or having impaired hearing is also linked to ADHD (2)

Further Reading

Last Updated: Feb 26, 2019

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.


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  1. Sarrah Joseph Sarrah Joseph United Kingdom says:

    I don't agree that it's to do with the parents lifestyle whilst pregnant. I also don't believe it is linked with a head injury. It is genetic and it is also a phenomenal occurrence like any other differences or traits a functioning person would have. I have noticed that a lot of people with ADHD have slightly predominate frontal lobes, which could be linked to the extra activity in their brain.

    People with ADHD are catorgrised in the same way as people with mental health disorders or vice versa. It is not a disorder and should not be viewed upon in the same catagory as a psychopathical condition, schizophrenia or even autistism. It is extremely important that this is understood.

    The ADHD trait is certainly a difference in the functioning of the brain, but this I believe is the progressive evolution of the modern brain. Needless to say it doesn't mean that those who don't have ADHD are less intelligent. Its more the case that those with ADHD are here to show another perspective to life a different way of progressive thinking.

    As a person with ADHD I can spot a fellow ADHD person instantly and it's a rare occurrence. These people are mainly upbeat, very much full of life and very sensitive. Our brains work very fast because we absorb more then one thought and visual image at a time. We pick up on other people's emotions, as we are highly empathatic. The issue is that at times we dont function  because we get frustrated with the world because we see a different way of being.

    A lot of people are misdiagnosed as I've met a few and I'm appalled with their incorrect assessment. The definition that ADHD is a mental disorder has to stop!!. It is certainly not a mental health disorder that stems from a mothers neglect or a young persons own health abuse. I've met people misdiagnosed and labelled with ADHD when I can clearly see they have something but it's is not ADHD.

    People with ADHD are born with the trait, the person may not know this. And because it is not a common trait others will comment on how lazy they are but what they mean to say is that they procrastinate. Laziness and procrastination are two very different habits. An ADHD person will procastinate because they are thinking about a lot of things so they wait for a moment until their minds feel ready to start the task. They are restless and can be overly energetic because they are very unbeat. But unfortunately it is the negative comments from others that generally cause low self esteem and thus result in self medicated habits.

    ADHD minds work at a different pace because they are constantly thinking about life and meaning. They are highly inquisitive which is why they have a need to try out many things so they learn more about the world and people. This is an exceptional trait. ADHD people should be leaders and teachers as they make great role models.

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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